Something unusual was happening in the Swan Room today.
I could hear the unexpected noise resonating in the hallway, unexpected because Dora looked after my bedroom as soon as she could in the morning, so no one should be in it this late in the day. It should be deadly silent. I knew Garland wasn’t yet home from his recent business venture, and he wouldn’t be in the Swan Room without me anyway. Even when I was in my bedroom and he could visit me, he was rarely there. To make love I had to go to his bedroom; I had to go there even to talk privately in the later evening sometimes. Aside from one occasion when we had made love in a rowboat on our lake, his bedroom had become the only love nest for us in this grand mansion and on this large estate. We had lost the magic of spontaneity years ago. If he didn’t plan it, nothing happened.
“Come to me tonight,” he would say.
When I first hesitated and demanded to know why it had to be his bedroom and not mine, he said he wanted it to feel more like a discreet rendezvous because that made it more romantic and we must never lose the romance. How could I argue against that?
However, years ago I realized that the real reason wasn’t the romance in him or the Foxworth arrogance showing its face; it was something else, something far worse that I would have to learn how to ignore and to live with, just like so many other dark and twisted secrets that dwelled in this mansion with its whispers and fading footsteps. Did all great families by nature have so many mysteries lingering? Should I have expected it and not been surprised?
Most girls think when they say “I do” to a man, they are saying it to him, to their new life together, but I had said it to a history captured and embedded so deeply in Foxworth Hall that opening a window didn’t do much to let in new, fresher air or release the captured cries and mournful sighs one could easily imagine having been sounded over the years here. It was as if every birth in this house and certainly every death left indelible shadows on the walls, shadows sunlight couldn’t push aside.
Right now I paused to listen harder on the stairway, barely breathing even though I had started up quickly, eager to bathe and change my clothes. I was nearly up to the second landing after returning from a midday shopping spree at Miller and Rhoads on High Street in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was going to send Dora down to bring up the packages. As usual, there were quite a few.
The department store had become my opium den. Buying new things and following what the salesladies called the recent fashions lifted me out of the doldrums these days. Garland was gone so often and for longer periods of time. It wasn’t like that during the first few years. Suddenly, he claimed that he no longer trusted his managers and there were all sorts of new marketing problems almost everywhere.
“I caught one manager embezzling from me,” he declared before charging out one time. It was never “embezzling from us.”
Whenever he left now, the house would darken even more and silence flowed in everywhere, flowed in waves, a tide of stillness. As time went by, the absence of music and laughter, almost any joviality, gave the mansion a cemetery atmosphere. Eventually, I half-expected everyone who worked here always to be dressed in black. The grandfather’s clock bonged out the hours like a drummer accompanying a funeral procession.
There were some good reasons for depression and unhappiness these days, however.
Garland’s factories and other investments really were struggling to stay profitable since the Panic of 1893. Whenever I complained about his leaving me so frequently and us doing so little when it came to having fun and enjoying the gay life he had promised, he went into a rant, weaving details about the overbuilt railroads and the stupid politicians who had driven the economy into shambles with the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. If I so much as groaned over these boring facts, his face would redden even more and he would pound the table after every complaint about the depleted federal gold reserves, blaming everything on stupid bankers and shortsighted investors. It wasn’t lost on me that my father was a banker who often guided investors.
“We were almost better off during the Civil War,” he had claimed at a recent dinner. “Not that we’re not still wealthy,” he quickly had added in a calmer tone. He never lost his pride. Foxworths didn’t grovel; Foxworths didn’t whine. “I’m not asking you to make any economies. Just understand my needs and how much harder I have to work to protect what we have.”
Before that evening had ended, I was expected to demonstrate how I sympathized and understood. That was the only way to bring us back at least to a semblance of a happy marriage. Too often, especially lately, I saw myself more like a temporary wife, winding down her allotted days of matrimony and family until some other young woman captured her husband’s fancy and she was sent out to pasture like a beautiful racehorse that had outlived its prime.
Perhaps some of this was my fault. I knew I resembled a girlfriend rather than a wife, even after all this time. Right from the beginning, I was willing to accept my freedom from domestic and motherly responsibilities. But that wasn’t completely my selfish doing. According to my mother, it was something I had to accept if I wanted to enjoy what she called “being part of the aristocracy.” I was a woman of wealth and position now. I couldn’t dirty my hands with the work and obligations ordinary married women and mothers performed. I admittedly wasn’t looking forward to any of that anyway. I barely did my share of housework when I was living at home, and becoming a mother so young had been so far off in my young imagination that it was barely a thought. Back then the possibility was right up there with flying to the moon.
But what my mother didn’t tell me about my “aristocratic life” was that I would have no separate identity and rarely be called Corrine instead of Mrs. Garland Foxworth. Gradually, I would lose contact with all those who knew me as anyone else. I was deposited into a world of strangers. And yet my mother insisted that love, romance, and marriage were merely baby steps taking you to a life in which you compromised; you sacrificed and your husband provided. When I complained, she nodded and with a bitter smirk said, “Of course this would happen. What did you expect? From the moment you say ‘I do’ until the day you take your final breath, you no longer have a different shadow. Get used to it.”
How depressing, but how true that was. Sometimes I did feel like a ghost, especially here in a house that was becoming more of a museum than a home for me. Our servants looked through me, walked around me, and rarely said more than the formal greeting unless I asked a question.
At first I thought I would take care of Malcolm right after Mrs. Cotter left. I really had intended to do that, and Garland must have believed it, too. He permitted me to have a carpenter create an infant’s swan bed. However, Malcolm didn’t sleep through a single night after he had been brought to the Swan Room. I wasn’t sure if it was because of the room or not having someone practically hovering over him constantly, which was something I wasn’t going to do. His incessant crying exhausted me, and I finally gave in to Dora taking over. The bed was left in my room since it had the swan embossed on the small headboard, and a new nursery was created.
After that, with Dora caring for Malcolm, with Mrs. Steiner overseeing every little thing this mansion needed, with Mrs. Wilson ruling the kitchen like the captain of a naval vessel, and with Garland’s forbidding my even changing the position of a lamp in a room, except for the Swan Room, I was beginning to see myself as unnecessary as dust. The house and the Foxworths had swallowed what little there was left of Corrine Dixon. Sometimes in dreams I saw myself swept up, bagged, and taken away. Without my portrait up on a wall, I’d be as forgotten as yesterday’s yawn.
My bedroom was my only sanctuary in the great house, the one place I ruled as firmly as Garland ruled the mansion. I could breathe there and pretend to be a young girl again and think silly thoughts. I would imagine myself still unmarried, still planning how I would flirt with and tease good-looking boys. But right now, my sanctuary was being violated. I hurried to it as if I believed my fantasies could be discovered.
Near the doorway, I stopped. I was surprised to hear Malcolm’s giggle, which always sounded like his father’s, a mix of a laugh and a deep, guttural exclamation of self-satisfied joy. There was much about his father that he imitated, despite how little he saw of him. He often spent more time beside Olsen, our groundskeeper, than he did with his own father. However, by the time he was four years old, he had already mastered this laugh to the point where if I didn’t see who it was, I wouldn’t know if it was Malcolm or Garland chuckling.
What was he doing in my bedroom, and where was Dora? He was never to go into my room when I wasn’t there. In fact, no one but Dora was permitted. Everyone in this house understood my strict orders about that. I especially didn’t want my son to wander about in it, touching my things. Malcolm, even at this age, was too mischievous and indifferent to any rules. You could see the defiance light up when you told him something he was not to do or somewhere he was not to go. I didn’t trust him to be alone with my possessions. He could strip pearls off a necklace and use them as marbles. Dora, defending him as much and as strongly as she would if he were truly her son, was quite aware of his impish behavior and did her best to contain him, but always found excuses for him, too.
Lately, however, my spoiled four-year-old too often was managing to get away from my personal assistant, who willingly had increased her responsibilities to become his nanny and tutor and, with what I saw as Garland’s blessing, essentially to become his surrogate mother. Maybe Malcolm required two mothers. He was that demanding, never pausing with his questions and his complaints. Usually now, he would go to her before he would go to me. He could wind her like a clock and get her to do his bidding. Whenever he ran off, he would disappear somewhere in the mansion as if it had consumed him. He wasn’t afraid of any shadow, any alcove or cranny, or any room. The whole of Foxworth Hall was his playground.
Often Dora needed help to locate him after he had snuck off. He would keep so quiet and so well hidden deeper in the mansion that it could take more than an hour to locate him or get him to come out. Punishing or threatening him with a spanking didn’t get him to stop his shenanigans, either. He never cried if I spanked him; he simply turned his eyes into glass and waited as if he had left his body and was anticipating when to rejoin it. One time when my parents visited us and Malcolm was just two and a half, my father warned me I was in for it. I had no idea what that meant at the time.
I was beginning to understand and would completely, especially today.
I stepped into the doorway. He was at my vanity table, tearing pages from Garland’s and my wedding album, crumpling them in his small hands, and tossing them at the wastebasket the way Garland tossed unwanted or unneeded paper at his office basket, imitating the sound of a Civil War cannonball.
My scream was shrill, frightening, even to me. Malcolm shuddered and paused, narrowed his eyes to look at me with shock at first and then defiance. Standing there in his new sailor suit with his flaxen blond hair and sky-blue eyes, he would melt the heart of any woman who saw him. Strangers, who had never been stung by his arrogant indifference or insolence, would smile at the sight of such an adorable and perfect child. I had no doubt that Malcolm realized this by now and knew how to take advantage of it. Exploitation and always profiting and scheming were part of his character. He was, after all, Garland Foxworth’s child, perhaps more somehow than he was mine. My mother would coldly tell me that Garland’s sperm drowned my helpless egg.
“What are you doing!” I cried, my hands clenched in fists, my face surely twisted and uglier than he had ever seen it. That was my wedding album he was destroying.
But he didn’t retreat. It didn’t frighten him. Before he replied, he ripped out another page.
“Hate the album,” he said, crumpling the page in his hands and tossing it boldly, making the same cannonball sound as if I weren’t there.
Twice recently he had come into the Swan Room while I was gazing at the album. Obviously, he blamed it for my not catering to his whims, whatever they were. I was so deeply in thought both times that I didn’t hear him enter and didn’t realize he was standing there, waiting to be acknowledged, waiting for me to agree to do something with him or for him or maybe just to answer another one of his incessant questions, like why were there so many clouds today or why didn’t worms have feet. He had screamed something mean and had run from the room.
So it didn’t surprise me that he would then target the wedding album. He knew it was something special. My spoiled son always chose a valuable item to damage or destroy whenever he wanted to express his anger or frustration. The angrier he was, the more expensive the target. Garland once joked that he had a rich man’s sense of taste from the moment he could grasp something and drop it to make it shatter. “Just like a Foxworth,” he had added, as if he was proud of how destructive of something valuable his son could be, and that the violence he expressed was good simply because it was what a Foxworth would do.
Our wedding album was valuable to us both, but not for Garland’s reasons. He was proud of it because it had been quite unique in 1890 to hire a photographer to snap pictures of the famous people at our wedding, as well as the decoratively constructed stage and the flowery surroundings Olsen had beautifully designed and built. There were pictures of the dance floor when we were doing our waltz and portraits of me in Garland’s mother’s wedding dress, some only with him, some only with my parents, and some with me and Dora, who had been conscripted to serve as my maid of honor.
Garland wouldn’t permit me to invite my best friend from Alexandria, Daisy Herman, to serve in that role. He wanted me to make a clean break from my earlier life, but also not have my youth emphasized at our wedding by my bringing along girls who, although not more than sixteen, too, looked it. I didn’t. I overheard him clearly tell people that I was recently eighteen. How do you begin a relationship on a foundation of lies, even though in all the pictures I looked that old?
Now, five years later, having such an album was still quite rare and still quite expensive. Garland had carefully researched to choose our photographer. He wanted to impress our guests, especially his envious business associates. My mother was certainly overwhelmed after Garland had copies of her pictures made, framed, and delivered to her and my father before their new house was constructed so she would have them to hang in their entryway.
It was another attempt of Garland’s to compensate and placate her because she had been left out of the great secret: I had been two months pregnant before Garland and I had married. I had confessed all to my father but not to her. Once she realized she had been kept in the dark, there was nothing Garland, my father, or I could do that would soothe her wounded ego. Even though my father and Garland had organized everything, carefully keeping her unaware, she focused her anger mostly on me.
Suddenly, now that I was mistress of one of the most impressive mansions in Virginia and married to one of the wealthiest young men in the state, our mother-daughter relationship was sacred. My not telling her the “dirty truth,” as she put it, was “a deep betrayal of our trust.” She was in tears.
“What trust?” I asked. “When was a strong and loving mother-daughter relationship important to you? When did you share anything personal with me to help me understand my own emotions growing up?”
She couldn’t answer that. Instead, she reached into a well of popular superstitions before my pregnancy became obvious.
“A woman who hides her pregnancy will have a child who is deaf,” she predicted. “Or worse.”
Malcolm might be growing up spoiled, but he was as close to a perfect child physically as could be. She was forced to accept it.
“You should be grateful,” I told her. “You have a beautiful grandson.”
Eventually, she swallowed down her indignation, gulping down her fake tears and complaints. Nevertheless, I knew my father would probably pay the price in small stinging ways forever, and I would never be truly forgiven. Now, whenever I uttered the smallest complaint, her response always was, “You made your bed behind my back. Now sleep in it.” I saw how much pleasure it gave her to say that.
And turning to my father for any sympathy wasn’t going to give me much satisfaction, either, mainly because I no longer believed in him. A little more than a year after our marriage, when Garland had drunk a little too much wine and was ranting about some investment he had made that had gone sour, I stumbled into another ugly truth when I said, “Maybe you should have asked my father about it.”
“Your father?” he said, and laughed as if I had said a stupid thing. Condescension and arrogance sang in harmony in this house. My self-pride rose like a cobra. Back then, I cared far more about my family pride than I did now.
“He is chairman of the bank board, Garland. That’s quite an accomplishment. People in business respect him. Otherwise, how would he be where he is?”
He looked away and busied himself with something unimportant just as he often did when he felt so superior to me. It was like I was not worth the effort involved in saying another word, but this time I wouldn’t be ignored. It was my father we were discussing.
“Yes, really,” I said. “You don’t know everything, especially that you don’t know that.” I could be as sharp as my mother when I wanted to be.
He turned and peered at me through those arrogant eyes and then smiled, but not in the sexy way I had so admired. This was what I had come to know as the Foxworth smile, cold, a precursor, a drumbeat that made you stop breathing for a moment because you knew something terrible was coming.
“The only reason your father is chairman of the bank board, Corrine, is because I voted for him. My investment gave me more votes than any other member. I agreed to that the first time he came to see me about you.”
I stared at him, thinking and shaking my head. That can’t be, I was telling myself, convincing myself. My father wouldn’t have done that. He wouldn’t have forgiven Garland for seducing me under the influence of his precious limoncello drink in exchange for his votes. But all that did happen at the same time. How could I deny that? Still, I wanted to hear it clearly. I wanted to be sure it wasn’t simply a coincidence he was employing for his benefit.
“When did you decide to do that, Garland?”
He looked away.
“Don’t be an idiot,” he said, and walked away from me, but the answer remained behind in the air, in the weight on my chest, and in the thumping of my heart. My father had convinced me that Garland was not only remorseful but fearful he would lose me. The way my father had described it helped me believe that I was the love of Garland Foxworth’s life, the perfect woman to be his wife. My father said that he had never seen a man so lovesick and persuaded me that Garland wanted not only me but our child.
I was always closer to my father than I was to my mother. I practically worshipped him and assumed he would never want anything for me that wasn’t wonderful and good for me. He took my side in almost every dispute I had with my mother and was eager for me to be treated like a grown woman. He was proud of me and enjoyed showing me off, having me on his arm, and introducing me to people he respected. How could I ever forget the proud look on his face when he had escorted both my mother and me up the stairs to the Wexler anniversary gala where I first had met Garland Foxworth? My father called it my coming-out party.
That Garland’s vote for chairman of the banking board would be more important to him than my utmost happiness was devastating. It was truly a great betrayal. I desperately tried not to believe it for a while after I first heard it, but gradually, like the water from a heavy downpour, no matter how much and how hard I pushed it away, it eventually soaked in and drowned my childish faith.
My father was an ambitious man, as ambitious as my husband after all. Maybe all men were the same. Marriage was simply another tool to service that ambition. What they didn’t realize was that love is too fragile, too easily sacrificed for selfish reasons and then the sacrifice regretted. They’d pay in the end. Surely they would suffer for this, and even though they pretended otherwise, deep down in their hearts they feared it. They knew, surely they knew. Deceit gives birth to miseries you had yet to imagine.
This was why I cherished and looked back at my wedding album from time to time. I wanted to see if there was an expression on anyone’s face that revealed he or she didn’t believe ours was a romantic love affair. Who besides my father and Garland knew about me, knew I was already pregnant? What was my father feeling when he stood to give me away? I studied his portrait to see if there was even the iota of regret. But I saw nothing in those smiles or in those eyes that revealed the ugly truth. Still, I turned to it as if it was a window on the past and if I looked long and hard enough, I would see and understand how and why I had been delivered so easily and quickly to my life in Foxworth Hall. That was my reason for placing so much value on these pictures.
Now much of that album was destroyed by the son whose very existence had brought Garland and me to the altar.
“How could you do such a terrible, mean thing?” I screamed at Malcolm. Some of the pages he had ripped were crumpled and balled on the floor beside the wastebasket. One had the portrait of Garland and me, Garland’s face the less wrinkled.
I reached for a belt I had hanging on the door. Even his father didn’t frighten him into better behavior with his threats. He often told me that it was up to a child’s mother to discipline the child until he was at least ten, especially boys. After that, if a mother did a good job, a father could enforce rules of behavior with merely a stern look, because his mother could threaten that his father would do worse things to him. My stern looks certainly didn’t work. Maybe they would this time. He surely could see my rage was at a new height, I thought, seizing the belt. He would cower and cry and plead. But as I turned back to him, he charged forward and ducked under my outstretched hand to run out the door.
“Come back here, Malcolm Foxworth!” I screamed, and charged after him, regardless of how foolish it made me look. I was that angry at him.
He started down the hallway, running toward the corner to follow another hallway into the darker side of Foxworth Hall, the wing that housed the rooms rarely used. They were afterthoughts long ago forgotten.
“Stop!” I screamed, and ran after him. “Malcolm Foxworth, you stop running right now. You can’t hide this time. We’ll find you, and it will be worse for you. Come back.”
So many things were driving me to run after him. Every frustration added more angry energy. I turned down the corridor and ran into the darker hallway. I could hear his footsteps ahead. The faster and longer he ran, the angrier I got. He was running in almost total darkness. Almost any child I had seen would have been afraid to continue alone, especially in this part of the house that was rarely lit. Mrs. Steiner barely kept after it. I felt the cobwebs breaking across my forehead. I passed the area that looked down on our ballroom, now in darkness, the window curtains drawn closed. I always hated this section of the house. The whispers of the dead still hovered in the corners. He had run here almost as if he knew that. Sometimes I thought he talked to them. Perhaps he had overheard me tell Dora how I always avoided this wing.
Moments later I heard a door ahead on the right open and close. I had been told that was the most unused bedroom in this house, never a guest room and never a room for any servant. From the way Mrs. Steiner had described it, no one had slept in it for decades even though it was fully furnished. I deeply suspected that it had been someone’s personal hideaway, maybe Garland’s mother’s or maybe even Garland’s, although he never admitted being in this wing of the house very much, either. The mansion had swelled, spawned new rooms over time along with the Foxworths’ growing egos.
I will drag him back by the scruff of his neck, I thought. If he wanted to be in a bedroom, he would be in his own for days and nights. That was about the only thing he feared, confinement. I caught my breath when I reached the door.
“Malcolm, you come out of there right now. Every second I wait will be another day locked in your room. Do you hear me?”
Silence was like a flame burning my heart. Any other child would be trembling and, by now, obedient. Enraged, I threw open the door. The darkness seemed even thicker, but there was enough light peeking through the heavy tapestried draperies covering the two tall windows for me to scan the two double beds. It was a large but cluttered room with a massive highboy, a large dresser, two stuffed chairs, plus a mahogany table with two chairs. He could be hiding behind anything, but I was thinking he had crawled under one of the beds. I was about to go to my knees when my eyes picked up the opened door on the left, a door I knew revealed the narrow stairway leading up to the attic.
Just how he would have the courage to go up there this time of day when the sunlight was dwindling astounded me. I had been up there only once with Garland, who obviously hadn’t enjoyed showing it to me. I had nagged him into it because in those early days, I wanted to know as much as I could about this house, my new home. As its new mistress, I felt obligated to be familiar with every part of it. It wasn’t a long visit in the attic. Garland wasn’t afraid of anything, but it was obvious that being there resurrected some unpleasant memories, memories he didn’t care to describe at the time.
He pointed out some of the very old things that had been stored. “I don’t know why,” he said. “I used to call this the Miser’s Palace. You know what misers tell you when you want to throw something out or give it away? ‘Someday this will be worth something.’ It’s worth something, all right, something to dust. It has a place to sleep. Now I would call it another Foxworth cemetery. You can almost hear their souls gathering up here. I used to think that was why the ceilings below creaked.”
It gave me the chills to hear him say that. I didn’t even like looking up the dark stairway now, but I had no doubt Malcolm wouldn’t be dissuaded. For all I knew, he had been up here a number of times.
“Malcolm!” I called, and walked to the door. The waning light of the late-fall afternoon sun barely illuminated the steps.
“You’ll get hurt up there, Malcolm. Come right now, this instant!” I shouted up the stairway, and then listened. The silence was broken only by the sound of the wind swirling over the roof and seeping into the cracks. It was almost a whistling. “Malcolm?”
I looked about for a candle, but this room had been unoccupied so long that no one bothered with it, especially in the evening. I was sure too much movement would stir whirling dust up from the floor. The room was more like a tomb. A rancid odor made me gag. Something might have died in it recently, I thought.
“Malcolm, you are going to be terribly sorry.”
I waited, but he didn’t stir.
Reluctantly, I started up the stairs.